Let me start by saying that the title of this piece isn’t really meant to be vituperative or condemning. In fact, the word “insidious” might be a little strong for the point I’m trying to make (but, hey, I liked the sound of the title, and it’s kind of my blog…so…there you go). I have made a critique of horror, before, on this blog, that the genre tends to be formulaic, that a truly original and artistic horror film, while possible (see The Witch, It Follows, etc.) is rare, and many horror films are startlingly similar. And this is true. But, far from continuing to condemn this tendency, in this post I’d like to celebrate the beauty of formula, when the director works well within a framework to create a really excellent film. In doing so, I guess I’ll sort of be suggesting that much of contemporary horror gets a bad rap from – not even, but especially – its most avid, enthusiastic followers, when it need not. A filmmaker can follow common horror tropes and eschew aiming for arthouse quality filmmaking without creating a bad film. I believe this because I’ve invested some time in watching really bad horror, and I avoid, for the most part, posting about it, because there’s no point in simply slandering someone else’s efforts on a blog when I have little if anything nice to say. So, today I praise Insidious. While it’s a movie that follows some typical horror conventions, it’s a really fantastic, scary, fun movie, and one that says a lot of interesting things about the ghost or the specter. Continue reading “An Insidious Slander: In Praise of Insidious”
She opened the Tupperware container and removed two more oreos, hoping that James wouldn’t notice they were gone when he came over later tonight; they were his private stash, that he kept at her apartment, and she liked to pretend she didn’t eat them. She was wearing black and gold – an ornate black and gold necklace with decorative flowers on it, from the edgy clothing store she worked at part time. She was wearing black and gold – and her hair was flipped a little toward the side, which she did sometimes to try to make it look more voluminous, although, she thought, the trick never worked really that well. Still, when her hair was parted in the center, it looked too flat, like it was painted to the top of her head and stuck to the side of her face. She didn’t much like that. She had never much liked her hair, for that matter.
Her leggings were black, speckled with gold, and she had black knee socks on over them, because the weather was cold, and socks were more comfortable than shoes. She had on a blazer which, really, she thought, was a bit excessive for the outfit, but then, it was early winter. A thick, even layer of snow lined the roof of the little wooden shed across the street, which she could see through one of her apartment’s front windows, and at the edge of the window, where it met the wall, through the pane, she could see the house next to the shed, and the long icicles hanging off it like big crystalline needles. It was winter, and so she wore a coat with her dress.
As for her friend Annie, Annie was dead, but that didn’t matter much. Annie was dead, but Annie had always been a willful woman. She’d resisted anything she didn’t like in life – at least, for the most part – and so it didn’t surprise Michelle anymore that Annie had resisted death. For Annie was dead, but as Michelle had found out a few weeks ago, Annie wasn’t really dead, not dead dead, not dead as a doornail, the way decomposing corpses below the earth are dead. Surely, Annie’s decomposed corpse was buried six feet under, but that was beside the point. Despite the fact that her rotting corpse was underground, Annie’s embodied spirit hung out some days in Michelle’s living room, practically salivating for the latest gossip about their circle of friends.
Michelle, Annie’s living friend, was a doctoral student in literature. Michelle thought of the theories of the specter that she was studying in one of her doctoral classes. According to Jacques Derrida, the specter disrupted the binary between life and death, altered space and time, and signaled the presence of injustice. Michelle didn’t see all of this happening with Annie’s presence, yet, although some of it was true. Space and time were like they always were, linear, meandering, and perpetually vacillating between the stimulating and the mundane, with some long, anxious hours in between that Michelle usually filled by eating cookies. But Annie certainly disrupted the binary between life and death, for once she had been alive, and then she died. And now, though dead, some afternoons Michelle found Annie in her living room, asking for a cup of coffee. And as for signaling the presence of injustice, well, that one was easy – or was it? What type of injustice did Annie signal? Michelle thought about it. Certainly, there were many possibilities, for further consideration, perhaps, at a later date. After all, it was almost time. If Annie were coming today, she would be coming soon.
She looked at the clock and it read 11:58 A.M. Annie came at noon every day that she came at all. Michelle thought it was funny, and very like Annie to come in the middle of the afternoon, when the sun hung high in the sky and warmed the earth with its rays – which it even did, sometimes, on cold winter days like today – instead of coming at midnight like Jacob Marley and ghosts in other ghost stories. It actually made perfect sense. Annie had been one of the warmest people Michelle knew. In life it was almost ridiculous how much people liked her – or so Michelle thought on her more bitter days, when she was feeling competitive or imagining that nobody in the world liked her nearly enough. There would be no logic or purpose to Annie coming at midnight, anyway, when Michelle didn’t have as long to talk because she was going to bed soon. So Michelle was rather glad that Annie came at noon, and she washed the oreo crumbs off her hands as she waited to find out whether or not she would hear a knock on the door. Sure enough, as soon as the digital microwave clock struck twelve, she heard the gentle “rum, pum, pum” of Annie’s hand hitting the front door.
Michelle made it a point to hurry to the door whenever her dead friend Annie knocked, which, like I said, was always at noon when it happened at all, precisely three hours and eighteen minutes before the mailman came, often with boxes of books or clothes for Michelle, or comic books for James, who sometimes had his stuff shipped to her apartment. The first time Annie had ever come to visit, Michelle had been in the shower. Annie displayed a mixture of patience and impatience when this happened. Michelle emerged from the bathroom, dripping wet and in a towel, only to hear the rhythmic “thum, tum, tum” on her front door. Not knowing, or not thinking, that it was Annie, she yelled “hold on,” and went upstairs to throw on some leggings and an oversized shirt, like the heroine of an 80’s movie. The knocking continued, in an oddly rhythmic manner, so that it sounded a little like part of a percussion section or a high school marching band. Michelle was both surprised, and a bit creeped out, by the steady, rhythmic, ceaseless knocking, accompanied by no voice.
To make matters worse, she fell down the stairs on her way to answering the door. She had on fuzzy, wooly socks, and somehow, as tended to happen with her, her foot slipped and she thudded down three stairs before grabbing her balance on the railing and composing herself, hoping, as she stood up and brushed herself off, that the mysterious visitor outside didn’t hear the ka-thump of her fall and the ensuing “Oh shit, ow, fuck” that exited her mouth. It was, after all, a little embarrassing, and she was a little annoyed with this weirdly melodic and relentless knocker who was not going to stop knocking until Michelle answered the door. She didn’t think to look out the peep hole, as you may have gathered by this point in the narrative, not even that first day Annie came, when she had no idea who was at the door. To be truthful, it could be because the writer behind this story is a mere novice, and didn’t bother to think that most reasonable human beings would do just that before rushing to open the door for an unexpected and anonymous guest. Conversely, it could also be because Michelle was fixated on the challenge of getting dressed quickly and opening the door in a timely fashion, so she efficiently moved from one maneuver to the next, omitting any unnecessary steps that would veer her off track and put more time between the first knock and her eventual ability to open the door, fully clothed. Either version of events is plausible, and, as you’ve gathered, they’re not mutually exclusive, so you can decide what part of the story to believe.
“Hold on, hold on, hold on….” She had yelled, and then considered that she sounded rather rude. What if it was someone of some importance knocking on the door? The occurrence was not likely, but it was possible nonetheless. And even if it wasn’t an eminent member of society – she chuckled and laughed at the exaggerated pompousness of her own wording – even if it wasn’t Barack Obama asking her to hang out now that he was retired, it was still important to treat people nicely. Even if, she thought, they’re handing out religious pamphlets or selling candy bars. So Michelle adjusted her tone and said, “Sorry, one second please. I was indisposed.”
“No problem, Michelle, although I will say, it takes you quite awhile to pull yourself together. No wonder you were always late when you picked me up.” Michelle didn’t really have time to consider this remark, although in the back of her mind, she recognized the voice and registered that the remark was, well, rather bizarre. “Just as long as you get to the door eventually. I haven’t seen you in awhile and I want to see if you’ve changed.”
When Michelle had heard that remark, the first time Annie knocked, she’d gotten more intrigued? Who was this mysterious visitor? And who found her so interesting?
Of course, the rest of the story tells itself. But if you lack imagination – which you well might, in this age of consumerism and technology – I’ll tell it for you. Michelle saw Annie, not dead, not decayed, not ugly. She was wearing the cute artsie hippie outfits she always wore – a long silk skirt and a fitted sweater that showed off a slender, hourglass frame –and she was smiling. Her cheeks were blushed, and a little fuller than they’d been in life. She looked very much alive. And for Michelle, it was one of those moments when she would have expected to be terrified but wasn’t, and was instead very calm and focused, like when her brakes went out on a busy road in the center of the city. Annie looked, well, exactly like Annie, except happier and healthier than when she’d been alive. The only other difference between Annie-in-life and Annie-in-death – or Annie between-life-and-death – was that this Annie’s feet were hovered just a little bit above the ground, so that she was suspended in mid-air, about three inches above Michelle’s concrete porch.
“You can’t stand on solid ground?” was thus Michelle’s first question – indeed, her first utterance – when she saw Annie. Of course, it would have been customary to say hello, but Michelle had already conjectured that her dear, deceased best friend was now a ghost, and ghosts had always fascinated Michelle. She wanted to understand how her undead friend operated, so to speak.
“Well that’s a fine greeting,” Annie responded. “Nice to see you, too.” And then, without being invited, she nonchalantly floated into Michelle’s apartment, and headed straight for the oreos. “Before you eat them all,” she said sardonically.
In the beginning of Place: An Introduction, Tim Cresswell describes the significance of placing a specific art exhibit, one foregrounding Bollywood movies, in an elite Swedish town where only the 1% tend to visit, in part because it’s difficult to get there. Cresswell includes the following quote in his introduction: “ ‘It’s difficult to get to,’ Mr. Wakefield added, ‘but because of that, it also demands a different kind of attention. You discover the art through the place and the place through the art.’ The exhibition at Gstaad reflects a wider interest in how art and place interact on the part of both the artists and art theorists” (2). This got me thinking that it might be intriguing to examine The Shining not just from a few lenses but – perhaps – from the intersection of a few lenses: Space or place, as its conveyed in the film, the cultural space in which the film is produced, and the current cultural space in which I, the viewer, am watching the film. This move, I think, is necessarily spectral, or turns the art under examination into a specter that disrupts linear time, since I become sort of engaged in this spectral moment, where I’m looking at the art forward, backward, etc – and this is especially true of The Shining, which situates its primary space, The Overlook Hotel, as a place that’s both mad and spectral, that consistently – if not constantly – manifests itself as a presence in the spectral moment by embodying both the past and the present – and, to the contemporary viewer, the more recent past (1921, 1980, 2017, but arranged as 2017 encompassing a film that shifts back and forth between 1921 and 1980, that begins by emphasizing 1980 but ends by emphasizing 1921). As a “cautionary note,” I found, as I was watching, that it was challenging to thread the entirety of this analysis throughout my interpretation of the film, especially for a blog post, but that’s the general angle I’m coming from when I look at the film. (As a sidenote, I wonder the extent to which we could deduce that all art is “spectral” – or maybe that’s what I’m getting at, but that seems like a sweeping argument for a later time). Continue reading “The Shining: A Spacial and Temporal Examination of a Spectral Narrative”
True to the title of my piece, this is not a horror story. Although, what I see now that I didn’t see when things like this happened was just how much my friend and I wanted it to be a horror story, how much we enacted the things that we read in our Fear Street books and our horror movies, and made the world of horror come alive, if, simultaneously, to our delight and our chagrin. Again, this is not a horror story. This is a childhood memory – a childhood memory I share on an overcast day in early November, when my frenetic, two-and-a-half-month mania has dwindled and I’ve suddenly fallen into this shifting state that fluctuates between focused, positive energy and complete depression and self-loathing. This is not a horror story—at least, I hadn’t intended it to be so. But, maybe it will turn out that way as I keep writing. One never can predict the end of the story, after all—or, at least, I can’t—when one’s merely writing the beginning. Continue reading “The Blue Man – Or, This is Not a Horror Story”
A year ago on my blog, I began a series called “My First Fright” which sought to examine the things that scare us most when we’re children, to re-situate us in those moments when we first encountered feelings of fear. Upon consideration, it has occurred to me that a first fright, or a first confrontation with the feeling of fear, can be, and often is, much different than a first encounter with something – a story, experience, movie, and so forth – that may typically be considered part of the horror genre. While I may have experienced fear listening to the dreaded chipmunk song or watching Large Marge’s face contort during Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, those horrifying moments were far different than early moments I faced that constituted my first encounter with horror. And while I can’t decide, with certainty, what qualifies a work or a story for membership in the horror pantheon, and what my definitive first-horror moment is, I very much recall hearing the story of the formidable Bloody Mary, the violent mirror witch-ghost, for the first time. To that end, I’ll delight in re-living my first encounters with the Bloody Mary myth, and how she partially initiated me into the genre during my early years of childhood. Continue reading “Early Encounters, Part I: The Horror of Bloody Mary”
With the mass-produced barrage of horror movies available to us – sometimes formulaic, sometimes cheaply made – it can be tempting for the jaded horror-goer to presume that nothing is truly scary anymore. I offer no new argument, after all, when I contend that in our increasingly sensationalized visual culture, we become (or at least risk becoming) desensitized to so many horrible things, immune to so much tragedy. It takes far more, at least from a visual standpoint, to scare us than it did sixty years ago (a fact that will be evident to anyone who compares The Haunting to an Eli Roth film). This may not be the case universally, but it’s a general rule. And still, scary movies are manufactured, and the passionate horror fan does encounter, every now and then, a film that is particularly, unexpectedly scary. Such was my experience with the film Sinister, released about two weeks before Halloween in 2012 (although I saw it much later ). Granted, Sinister is not as artistically scintillating as my two favorite horror movies of reference – The Shining and It Follows – but it’s still a well-made, incredibly unsettling film. When I told Michael I wanted to write a piece about it, he reassured me that he wouldn’t be upset if I re-watched it without him; one time was enough for him. So I sat down tonight, in my little Indiana apartment, with a focusing question in mind: What makes this film so scary? While I may discuss other things in the post below, I am particularly interested in exploring possible answers to this question. Continue reading “What Makes Sinister So Scary?”
Michael and I have been talking lately about the phenomenon of hating. Of course, hate is prevalent in all sects of life, and more problematic in some sects than others. But when it comes to the arts, and films specifically, people love to hate. Witness the new female-driven Ghostbusters film: it’s brilliant and funny and original, but people get this weird high off slamming it on the internet. The same goes for the Star Wars prequels: any attempt to re-visit the highly successful plot of the first three films was certain to be met with some contempt, because our proclivity to love has an opposite proclivity to hate. And I think the same observation could be made with M. Night Shyamalan. Continue reading “Sensing Brilliance in the Sixth Sense”